5 Ways to Score Cheap Flights

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For the longest time, I kept a list of places that I wanted to go running in my head, on Pinterest boards, saved photos on Instagram, posts on previous blogs… you name it, I had travel inspiration everywhere. Despite knowing where I wanted to go, my biggest road block to starting a trip was the question of “how?” First the how had to do with work. How can I go on a big trip when I don’t have any vacation days? or… How can I go on a big trip when I don’t feel like I can leave work without worrying about it the whole time I’m gone, thus negating going on vacation in the first place?Those questions didn’t have an easy answer for me, because the answer was simply – give it more time. Despite desperately needing a vacation when things were so busy that I couldn’t get away, I just needed to give my life some more time to make it possible.

With the work-how resolved, the most common how came into play – How am I going to get there, and how am I going to pay for this? Growing up, I remember asking my parents if we could go to Europe and was always told that the flights are simply too expensive. This was true, and my parents had enough other things to worry about than their daughter wanting to go on a fancy vacation to Rome to live our her Lizzie McGuire Movie dreams (if you were a middle school girl in 2003, you know what I mean).

Luckily for us now, flights don’t have to be so crazy. I’ve booked some insane deals to Europe over the past year or so, and want to share in how I’ve found them:

  • $342 round trip from Seattle to London/Reykjavík (November 2017) found on Google Flights

  • 40,500 AA Award Miles from Seattle to Dublin (March 2018) booked through American Airlines, found out about the deal from TPG

  • $444 from Seattle to Glasgow/Reykjavík (May 2018) found in an Icelandair Newsletter the day I returned from my London trip last fall

  • $363 from Seattle to London/Reykjavík (again, October 2018) found on Google Flights

  • $278 (!!!) from Seattle to London/Reykjavík (March 2019) found on Google Flights, and then booked flights $49 each way to and from Portugal, bringing airfare for the whole trip to just $378

  • $400 roundtrip on British Airways to Paris (February 2020) found via Scott’s Cheap Flights

  • $353 roundtrip on American Airlines to Amsterdam in Tulip Season (April 2020) found via Scott’s Cheap Flights

Here are all of the ways that I have booked flights for myself in the past year, I know that there are more resources out there that I haven’t used – if you know of anything awesome that I’ve missed, let me know in the comments!

Google Flights

The best fares are usually highlighted in green (ex. January 23rd)

The best fares are usually highlighted in green (ex. January 23rd)

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The beauty of Google Flights is that it is equally useful for trips that I know that I want or need to take, as it is for gathering trip inspiration and cruising around to find the cheapest fares. Unlike many travel sites, you only use Google Flights to search for your flight, but then buy your flight directly from the airline itself. This is great because you don’t run the risk of just “requesting” a seat and ending up with a middle seat like you would using a travel agent or discount site.

I have used Google Flights to find my flights that took me back and forth between Seattle and Austin for my friends’ wedding festivities this summer, and I also used Google Flights to book a spontaneous trip to London last fall. With the Bachelorette and Wedding flights, I knew exactly where, when, and how long I needed to go. I was able to use Google Flights’ calendar to search for the dates I needed. I was also able to use their calendar to look for the cheapest dates to fly as I booked my trip to London. You can select how many days you’d like to be away, and it will display the round trip price for that duration for every day of the year. This really helps when you’re booking a vacation that you can be flexible with, and plan your travel according to the dates that give you the best deal. You can also track the price on flights that you’ve been looking at to see if you can get a better price.

Last fall, two of my friends and I booked a trip to London and Reykjavík for this October for $360 per person (I really like London and Iceland, okay?). We have been talking about this trip for agessss but never pulled the trigger. After a few G&Ts on a Sunday night, I found this fare, texted the group, and within a few days it was decided – we’re going. While I’m so excited for this trip – I’m technically going to London twice in one year – I am a little sad that I missed out on an even cheaper flight a few weeks later over Thanksgiving… only $270 round trip to London! The dream! I’m already on the hunt for my next long vacation next spring.

SCOTT’S CHEAP FLIGHTS

While I’ve been a member of Scott’s Cheap Flights for a while, I’ve yet to actually book a flight deal he’s recommended. The main reason for this is that I’ve found flight deals on my own, using Google Flights, and actually scooped a deal a day or two before I received an email from Scott. I do have several friends who actually have booked a trip thanks to Scott’s tips. Two of my friends took a trip to Australia last year for less than $500 per person! That’s insane! Scott picks up fare sales, but also finds mistake fares – I’m always hoping to manage to snag a first class ticket that is $50 instead of $5,000. In the meantime, I’ll just be excited about my $400 flight to Paris coming up in February.

THE POINTS GUY

Knowing how to accumulate and most efficiently redeem rewards points is also a great way to score cheap travel. If you’re not using a credit card that earns points – you should totally do some research on the topic and choose the right one for you. The Points Guy is a great resource on the subject, and along with comparing the benefits of every type of rewards card, they also give great travel tips and cover how to book flights using both points and actual money. I went to Ireland in March thanks in part to signing up for an American Airlines branded credit card ages ago, and The Points Guy’s information on when is best to book reward travel on American. I ended up traveling to Ireland the week before St. Patrick’s day for the same amount of points I may have spent to go somewhere here in the US.

SIGN UP FOR AIRLINE NEWSLETTERS

As much as I have learned from sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights or The Points Guy, I’ve actually scooped them on a few deals thanks in large part to receiving Airline Newsletters. I periodically check my promotions folder to see if there are any good sales going on (travel or otherwise), and have been pleasantly surprised to see emails from Icelandair advertising discounted flights from Seattle, and on more than one occasion I actually booked it. Thanks in part to the newsletters and Google Flights, I’ve booked deals to Europe for under $400, easily up to a week before the deals sites caught wind of them. 

TELL FRIENDS AND CROWDSOURCE IDEAS

If you’re anything like me, and you must be if you’re reading this, then you likely have likeminded friends who love to travel but hate spending all of their vacation budget on flights or hotels. My friends and I are constantly talking about where we want to go next, and we’ll all look out for deals for each other as we hunt for the next big deal. We each have our own techniques for planning travel and as a result we often uncover different routes or fares. Your friends may also be part of different groups or emails lists that may provide different information (ie. Scotts Cheap Flights vs. Next Vacay). If you shout it from the rooftops that you’re looking for your next vacation, your friend may be able to help you get there just with a bit of knowledge sharing.

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU HIT “BUY”
 

  1. Be aware of your fare’s baggage policy: When I booked my trip to Glasgow, Icelandair had recently changed their fare structure to include a “Basic Economy” product. This meant that my ticket did not include a checked bag. I, stupidly, didn’t realize this until I arrived at the airport, and was told that in order to bring my already packed and ready to go checked bag, I needed to pay over $175 for it to come with me on every leg of my trip! I would have saved a bit of money had I just purchased the higher priced fare, or even pre-booked my luggage online.

  2. Be cautious of booking on a 3rd party site: You can sometimes get cheaper fares by booking a flight through a site such as Orbitz or Priceline. However, this can be tricky because you then may not have the same abilities to change or manage your flight as you would if you book directly with the airline. On my trip to London last fall, I booked through Priceline. It made it difficult to know which seat I had until the day of my flight, as they request a seat for you that isn’t confirmed until check in. This added a bit of extra stress, and the difference in price was likely about $10 between booking direct or not.

  3. Know your connections: Be aware of your connection times and connecting airports. It can be tempting to just keep clicking the lowest price available, connections be damned. However, you do want to make sure that you have enough time in between legs to make your next flight – especially if you’re traveling abroad or in wintertime. When I booked my trip to Dublin, traveling in March, I didn’t think much of connecting through Philadelphia. While I had ample time in-between flights to make my connection by way of the Centurion Lounge (v. important), I hadn’t factored in the possibility that Philadelphia might have been subject to a Nor’Easter the day of my flight. I hadn’t budgeted time in my trip for a cancelation or significant delay – I had planned to go straight from the Dublin airport to Ashford Castle – and felt that if my flight was canceled, I’d miss that part of my trip. Because of this I ended up re-booking a flight on British Airways, connecting through London instead. This cost me a couple hundred dollars in Taxes to fly into LHR, which could have been avoided has I just planned for more time on either side of my flight.

  4. Make sure you plan thoroughly before buying: While your flight may by cheap, your accommodations and things you want to do when you get to your destination may not be. I recently went to Napa ahead of a business trip, and while the flight was actually cheaper to fly into Santa Rosa one-way, and then return on a separate ticket from San Jose, my hotel and wine tasting activities in Napa itself were astronomically expensive. It was worth it in the end, but came with a bit of sticker shock after I had already committed to flying to Santa Rosa. Another example is when booking a trip with friends, make sure that everyone is onboard before hitting buy. You don’t want to be stuck with a hefty change fee if plans dissolve faster than they came together.

  5. Just do it: This contradicts #4 a bit, but don’t hesitate too much before buying that ticket. You’ll never go anywhere if you don’t make plans, and often the first thing to sort out is the flight. If you find a steal of a deal, it won’t last long, so don’t talk yourself out of a good deal and an even better experience!